Wyse words: On building the Grid, and shutting it down

Vanessa Wyse served as creative director of The Grid during its 3 1/2-year run.
Vanessa Wyse served as creative director of The Grid during its 3 1/2-year run.

Earlier this year The Grid in Toronto published its last issue. Under the creative direction of Vanessa Wyse, the hybrid magazine/newsweekly had set a new standard for design excellence, earning the first back-to-back-to-back World’s Best recognition in SND history. Vanessa was kind enough recently to take me through the evolution of The Grid’s design voice, and how its staffers are coping in the aftermath of its closure.

The Grid burst onto the scene in 2011, offering something new in terms of design and storytelling approach. Can you describe how its vision was articulated and realized before its launch?

At the time we launched The Grid, Toronto was going through some major changes as a city, with its well documented city politics, exploding food and drink scene, and the downtown real estate boom. There was such a vibrant energy in the city that it seemed like the perfect time to create a new editorial product and build a city magazine that we had always wanted to read.
We focused on “Street-level” as a starting point and branched out from there. Most of the staff came from magazine backgrounds so we basically used all of the magazine storytelling tools we knew and loved and applied it to a newspaper format. This strategy created a kind of hybrid publication with the best of both worlds. Utilizing relevant stories, large documentary photography, clean and contemporary design, loads of entry points and graphics, and a fun editorial tone throughout the magazine.
While were were originally creating The Grid we were also still producing its predecessor, Eye Weekly. It was a very grueling few months carrying both weeklies with such a small team but also really exciting. Coming up with an entirely new identity, editorial mandate, visual language, new sections and architecture was a designer’s dream come true.

How did you see it evolve over its 3 1/2 years?

In terms of the editorial product, we really just focused on our strengths and tightened the story we were trying to tell. Always returning to our original mandate of ‘Making people smarter about their city.’ We never tired of new things to talk about in Toronto. We designed more infographics and charts, refined our photographic and design style, and integrated ourselves in the DNA of the city.
A few months before we closed the publication, The Grid scaled down its physical size making it even closer to an over-sized magazine. I could even bleed images, which was very exciting.
When we decided to make the change, it was very tempting to try and redesign the entire publication. My team and I played around with a few attempts, new fonts, grids etc. But the truth is that The Grid was never broken. The design decisions we had made originally still held up. We just had to rethink the editorial message slightly and change the size. Freshen it up a bit. So that is what we did.
We focused on how the city was run and where we were headed. Playing with the idea of scope, we started with the most timely city-building and municipal issues then onto a more thematic and service orientated section. Finishing with a round up of our favorite cultural things to do in the coming week.
Overall, the rethink was met with pretty positive reviews. I was actually surprised. I thought people would hate the smaller pages but most of our readers loved the new size, making it easier to read while commuting. They loved the loose, organic approach to the design and the addition of hand-drawn elements to some pages.

Complete shutdown of the publications we produce is a nightmare scenario for journalists. Can you tell me how the announcement was made, how it has felt, and how people are coping?

We had a real passion for the city and the magazine so this really was a huge loss on so many levels.
Aside from the personal loss, I feel like it was a huge loss for Toronto as a city. No one was telling the kind of stories the way The Grid was telling them. Whether it was our political coverage, our food and booze content or our design and photography, it was a different view of our city that seems missing right now.
Announcing the news to the staff was very difficult; everyone was in shock. We were doing something we believed in and to have it disappear just like that was hard to get past. But with media landscape as it is, we simply ran out of time.
Now that the dust has settled, everyone on staff seems to be doing well. Most are working again, either full-time or freelance. It was such a honor to be part of something with a group of people who were so committed. We were in this together, no matter how hard it became and it was definitely the most challenging job I have ever had. We had so much creative freedom, which was a rare opportunity. I am so grateful for that. A kind of work environment that really allows people to rely on their instincts, take risks and shine. It was a dream job while it lasted.

What has been the reaction of Grid readers?

When the news hit Twitter we couldn’t believe the outpouring of support. Thousands of tweets instantly went up, some using words like “heartbroken” and “devastated”. Some people are still posting messages about how much they are missing the paper each week. Our readership was extremely engaged, committed, loyal, and was still growing. Even though we had been unsuccessful from a business standpoint, we had 20-30 year old’s reading print. That’s unheard of these days!

You produced 162 issues of The Grid. Is there one that stands out as a personal favorite?

There is just no way I can choose one issue as a favorite. Sometimes it was the smallest detail or chart that got me really excited. Here are a few of my favorite things we did over the 3 years from covers, typographic features and infographics (click to enlarge).

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About Stephen Komives

Previously served as Executive Director of the Society for News Design, from 2009–2019.

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